Telling Stories

One economist finds moving away from "hard" truth may lead to a greater truth

iana Strassmann learned a lot at graduate school, though not always what her professors intended. In one seminar, an eminent economist claimed that the marriage tax was efficient and fair. It encouraged married women to stay home and care for their small children instead of working, he said, and thus prevented "intergenerational disequities."

Strassmann, a lowly first-year grad student, dared to argue with the professor. Hadn't he ever considered the possibility that a man and woman might share the responsibility of childrearing?

He responded with an elaborate cloud of cool economic language: Careers, he said, are subject to economies of scale, which makes sharing such tasks inefficient.

Diana Strassmann: Life's too short to spend on theories out of sync with the real world.
Deron Neblett
Diana Strassmann: Life's too short to spend on theories out of sync with the real world.

As the semester wore on, Strassmann continued to argue the point, meeting his cool economic language with her own. She believed in objective economic reasoning, believed that in the marketplace of ideas, the better idea would always triumph.

But eventually, she heard that the eminent professor's wife, herself a Ph.D. in economics, was staying at home full-time with their young children. Obviously, the professor had a personal stake in the issue. And obviously, Strassmann's arguments weren't going to change his mind.

It was years before she completely absorbed that lesson.

On almost any college campus, the economics department is the most macho of the social sciences. Economists tend to believe not only that their discipline most tightly grasps The Objective Truth About Humankind, but that the Truth can be described mathematically, rendered with existence theorems and statistics. Economists like to call their work "hard" science, or at least the hardest of the social sciences. By that, they mean to compare their research to something like physics: objective, driven by the scientific method, free of the wifty ditherings of sociologists, linguists and other right-brained members of the faculty. Economists don't intend the obvious sexual meaning of the word "hard." And they don't mean "hard" in the sense of "difficult," as in a claim that economics demands more brains than the squishy disciplines. But often, when an economist says "hard science," those unintended meanings hang in the air. It's that kind of field.

At first, Strassmann fitted in comfortably. Her father was an economist, and she studied the subject at Princeton and Harvard. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on pricing in the airline industry -- empirical, quantitative stuff, as close to hard science as economics gets. She believed in her discipline.

But first in graduate school, and increasingly as a young faculty member at Rice, she felt misgivings. She was genuinely interested in the theoretical issues (and besides, the cost of airline tickets made great cocktail conversation). But her male colleagues were emotionally consumed by transportation, even by the peripheral details that had nothing to do with their work: Grad students sat around discussing Boeing's newest designs; professors displayed little toy airplanes and trains in their offices. It had never occurred to Strassmann to buy herself a toy plane.

She was also annoyed by her field's preference for theory over niggling real-world facts. Another economist might offer a model of airline pricing that assumed companies pay no attention to their competitors' prices -- the kind of model that, to Strassmann, seemed too distant from reality to be of any interest at all. Such "simplifying assumptions" help reduce messy human behavior to math, and economists consider it bad manners to complain much about those assumptions. You're supposed to concoct a better model, not snipe at someone else's.

But it wasn't just individual models that seemed to have shaky foundations; sometimes her field's most basic assumptions seemed dangerously wrong-headed. Classical economics assumes that people are perfectly altruistic in the home but perfectly selfish in the marketplace.

Even in real life, her colleagues often didn't understand other people's constraints. In '86 Strassmann was 30 and pregnant with her first child. She thought she was being a model female professor: She'd even managed to schedule her due date in May, so she'd be able to finish teaching classes for the semester and spend the summer with her baby. But many of her male colleagues construed the pregnancy as a sign that Strassmann was not a serious professional. They incorrectly assumed that the pregnancy was accidental; some argued, out of her earshot, that a responsible, ambitious tenure-track professor would have an abortion.

Life, she decided, was too short to spend on theories that seemed out of sync with her world. She stopped doing much economics research and started trying to figure out what it was that she really wanted to do. She began reading in other fields and talking shop with other brands of academics, people from the social sciences and humanities. She was confused when they'd use the word "theory" to describe an idea that couldn't possibly be expressed mathematically; she told herself that the scholars in those fields hadn't been educated rigorously.

One of those scholars was Sharon Traweek, then in the Rice anthropology department. In her book Beamtimes and Lifetimes, Traweek described her studies of particle physicists, people who practiced the hardest of hard science. She found that, like any other group of humans, physicists behave in ways that aren't purely objective. The physicists (both male and female) tended to be self-promoters and full of bravado, and many of them said that variety of machismo was necessary to succeed in their field. They also tended to describe their work in an erotic way, casting themselves as the male pursuer of passive Nature; a Nobel laureate, for instance, might write about his "love affair with the electron."

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